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Women and the American Civil War (December 2015): Southern Perspective

by Elizabeth A. Novara

Southern Perspective

In general, Southern women’s Civil War experiences have received more attention than have Northern women’s, mainly because Southern women lived in contested geographic areas during the conflict.  In earlier histories, elite and middle-class white women represented a major focus because their letters and diaries were more easily accessible to researchers.  In recent decades, however, historians have expanded their investigations to a broader spectrum of women—black and white, rich and poor.  African American women, while discussed in this section, will also be addressed at greater length later in this essay.

In 1970, Ann Firor Scott’s The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, although not focusing on the Civil War exclusively, became seminal to the field of Southern women’s history.  One chapter on the Civil War, where Scott focuses on white Southern women’s activities in support of the war effort, echoes Massey’s general theme in Bonnet Brigades.  Several scholarly works in the late 1980s and 1990s bolstered the field of women’s Civil War history and the history of women’s relationships to the Confederacy.  These works mainly identify women as being left out of the conversation of Civil War history, which had long focused on military campaigns, but the books also clearly define women as political actors during the war.  George Rable’s Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism is one of the first scholarly monographs to note that “even though women could not vote, they were part of the political culture and helped both to sustain and undermine Confederate economic and military policies.”[1]  Rable, as many others after him would do, shows how elite white women benefited from the class and social assumptions in the South, and how these assumptions necessarily bound women to slavery.  Elite white women had to support slavery if they wished to continue to live the life of privilege and leisure to which they were accustomed.  Catherine Clinton’s Tara Revisited: Women, War, & the Plantation Legend looks at black and white women of large plantations.  She discusses how elite white women assisted in supporting the Confederacy, and how enslaved women undermined the Confederate government with acts of resistance.  Drew Gilpin Faust broke new ground with Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.  Faust challenged previous scholarship about loyal elite white women by arguing that women’s suffering and falling morale from the deprivations of war caused them to stop supporting the Confederacy.  In so doing, these women triggered the collapse of the Confederate government.  Another study that looks at the interactions of slave women and plantation mistresses is Marli F. Weiner’s Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830–1880.

Dissent within the Confederacy was and continues to be an important topic.  Victoria Bynum’s Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South sets the stage for investigations into “deviant” women; represents a fairly early study of regional variations in women’s experiences of the war; and attempts to incorporate yeoman, poor white women, and black women into the historical discussion more fully than have previous histories.  One group of women that Bynum defines as “unruly” are those who defied the Confederate government during the war.  Yeoman women, who suffered and lacked basic provisions during the war, engaged in political unrest and encouraged male relatives to desert the Confederate army.  Catherine Clinton’s brief lecture titled Public Women and the Confederacy fits with Bynum’s analysis of deviant women but focuses on concerns over prostitution during the war.  Bynum’s newest work, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, also delves into the history of dissent but looks at pro-Union, Quaker women in North Carolina fighting Confederate occupation.

Household power structures and family relations are at the heart of most investigations into women’s lives during the war.  Laura F. Edwards’s Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era is similar to Rable’s work in that it provides a synthesis of the history of Southern women before, during, and after the Civil War.  The author interrogates the politics of the household and notes “domestic relations were inseparably connected to civil and political rights.”[2]  Her synthesis argues for a more nuanced view of women during the war, rather than the monolithic view of the Southern belle.  Kristen E. Wood’s Masterful Women: Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War looks at how widows wielded power in the South, a society based on male heads of household, and only reluctantly entered the public sphere with the coming of the Civil War.

Historians are also exploring the importance of Sherman’s March in Southern women’s history.  In When Sherman Marched North from the Sea: Resistance on the Confederate Home Front, Jacqueline Glass Campbell also discusses the household as the center of politics in the South.  Campbell is particularly disheartened that Confederate women’s roles have become depoliticized over the course of history.  She takes to task those historians, including Drew Gilpin Faust, who have argued that all slaveholding women were burdened by the war.  Campbell’s response is that women’s reactions were much more complicated, especially in areas of military invasion.  She looks closely at these areas in North and South Carolina and demonstrates how women’s support and patriotism for the Confederacy actually increased in these occupied territories.  Lisa Tendrich Frank looks at Sherman’s March in The Civilian War: Confederate Women and Union Soldiers during Sherman’s March.  Frank investigates the power struggles of elite white women with invading Union soldiers, and argues that these women’s conception of their gender roles shaped Union reactions and strategies in attempts to undermine support for the Confederacy.

Two of the most influential books of the last decade related to Southern women and the Civil War are Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household and Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  Both books look beyond elite white women toward a more inclusive history.  Glymph provides a distinct view of white women as she interrogates how they dominated black women, especially with violence, and how this reality conflicts with notions of the Southern “lady” and domesticity.  In Southern slaveholding households especially, the lines of power ran not only in the public sphere, but in the supposedly private sphere as well, since the household was the root of social organization.  Womanhood and domesticity therefore were bound up in the idea of Confederate nationhood.  As slaveholding households crumbled, freedwomen’s status, work, and homes were transformed.  McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning examines the lives of poor white women and slaves.  She argues that poor white women were engaged politically with the Confederacy and with their nascent citizenship in the Confederate nation.  Although the Confederacy had a very narrow legal definition of who constituted its citizenry, the four million women not legally defined as political actors still managed to behave in citizen-like ways.[3]  In particular, McCurry investigates women who self-identified as “soldier’s wives” and their interactions with the Confederate government.

Regional studies have become more important to women’s Civil War history as well as in the larger historical field.  Nancy Bercaw looks at how the plantation household crumbled during the war in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta in her book Gendered Freedoms: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Household in the Delta, 1861–1875.  This important study considers both African American and white women’s private feelings and public responses to a changing basis of personal and political power in Southern society.  Tracy J. Revels presents an interesting view of an overlooked region of the South in Grander in Her Daughters: Florida’s Women during the Civil War.  Revels looks at women from all backgrounds and segments of society, and argues that women typically placed family foremost in their wartime activities.

More general works incorporating Southern women’s experiences include editor John D. Fowler’s The Confederate Experience Reader: Selected Documents and Essays, which looks at the war from a distinctly Southern perspective.  The Reader includes chapters titled “Confederate Women” and “African Americans,” and uses primary sources written by Civil War–era women, such as Kate Cumming, throughout the work.  Another general work with a much stronger focus on women is A Woman’s War: Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy, edited by Edward D. C. Campbell and Kim S. Rice.  A Woman’s War incorporates all women, including slaves and nonelite women, and looks at the legacy of the Civil War for women.

Finally, some edited document collections that feature (mainly white) Southern women’s perspectives include Marilyn Culpepper’s Women of the Civil War South: Personal Accounts from Diaries, Letters, and Postwar Reminiscences; Elizabeth Baer’s Shadows on My Heart: The Civil War Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck of Virginia; Mary L. Mackall, Stevan F. Meserve, and Anne Mackall Sasscer’s In the Shadow of the Enemy: The Civil War Journal of Ida Powell Dulany; Cornelia Peake McDonald’s A Woman’s Civil War: A Diary, with Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862, edited by Minrose Gwin; Minoa D. Uffelman’s The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams: A Southern Woman’s Story of Rebellion and Reconstruction, 1863–1890; and Marli Weiner’s A Heritage of Woe: The Civil War Diary of Grace Brown Elmore, 1861–1868.

There are also several interesting document collections worth mentioning that look at the experience of Northern women who lived in the South during the war, or of Southern women who lived or had lived in border states.  These include A Northern Woman in the Plantation South: Letters of Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, 1856–1876, edited by Wilma King; A Maryland Bride in the Deep South: The Civil War Diary of Priscilla Bond, edited by Kimberly Harrison; A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter, edited by John David Smith and William Cooper; and Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary, edited by Nancy Disher BairdThese collections muddy the definition of North and South, Union and Confederate, and assist in unmooring scholarly inquiry from a limited, binary viewpoint.


[1] George Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), xi.

[2] Laura F. Edwards, Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 4.

[3] Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 2–3.

Works Cited